Minshall in Norton's eyes: a photographer chronicles a mas legend

Noel Norton's photography celebrates the essence of TT. - Mark Lyndersay
Noel Norton's photography celebrates the essence of TT. - Mark Lyndersay

Minshall by Norton is a Peter Minshall retrospective chronicling the mas legend’s work from 1976 to 2006.

Christine Norton, daughter of the late photographer Noel Norton, described it as a unique art book and historical reference.

The hardcover book contains 190 colour photographs of Minshall’s main characters and selections of band performances both on stage and on the road, in single images and spreads. In addition to the photographs by Norton, it contains details such as the names of pieces and presentations, the story of what happened on stage, quotes from Minshall about Norton and Norton’s work, and notes from Minshall on the construction of the pieces.

The text was written by Nicholas Laughlin, with art direction by Richard Rawlins, and editing by Christine Norton and Richard “Ashraph” Ramsaran, with guidance from the Minshall Mas Foundation.

When Sunday Newsday contacted Minshall about the project, he recalled his early years.

He said he leaned towards creativity from a young age. He wanted to paint and draw, and be an artist because he felt there was no more noble profession. Minshall said his father had an affinity for theatre and recommended that he study it so at least he would have a job.

Peter Minshall's Mancrab (portrayed by Peter Samuel) captured on the Queen's Park Savannah stage by photographer Noel Norton. - Noel Norton

“What I did not know was that in doing theatre it would be a revelation to me – that the real theatre was the fancy sailors and blue devils. The more I learnt abroad, the more I learnt about myself. That was the beginning of it.”

Minshall graduated from London’s Central School of Art and Design, began his career in England and, in 1969, was chosen to design the sets and costumes for the Scottish Ballet’s world premiere of a full-length, two-act production of Beauty and the Beast at the Sadler’s Wells Theatre, London.

He said his mother was in the theatre and saw the audience erupt in applause when he was brought on stage.

It was his mother, too, who later asked him to return to TT to make a costume for his younger sister so she could be Junior Carnival Queen.

Minshall said he had no intention of returning to TT because he did not believe he could be an artist in this country. He said then and now, many people think, "Mas is only mas. It’s not really art."

However, he exclaimed, “Mas is more important than any painting on any wall. It takes thousands of humans, moments, to bring it and put it together and to play it on the road. Mas is art.”

Despite his reluctance, he returned to create the costume his mother had asked for – the Hummingbird – in 1974.

Peter Minshall's the Hummingbird, the junior Carnival queen in 1974, as photographed by Noel Norton. - Noel Norton

“Noel Norton photographed it from every which way and angle, understanding that something was happening to me, and something was happening to him, and something was happening to the hummingbird of TT in that moment.”

It was because of that costume that he agreed to design Stephen Lee Heung’s band Paradise Lost, in 1976.

“The island I had left was the island I had no choice but to come back to.”

After that, Minshall returned to the home of Noel and his wife Mary Norton every Ash Wednesday to choose the photos of his work that he wanted to keep as evidence of his creations.

“The mas is ephemeral and momentary. It is delicate and as fragile as a hummingbird. It is here today and it is gone tomorrow.

“He captured it with his work. His work is contemplative, but he and I both share the same eye, and the same heart and the same love.”

In the 1980s or 1990s, Minshall told Norton they must do a book of the collection of photos. He said the name was clear to him: Minshall by Norton. He said Mary wrote it down – and now it is the name of the 204-page book.

“The last words that Noel uttered to me were, ‘Peter. The book. The book. The island needs it. The world needs it.’

“Well, thank God, the island has now got it and the world has now got it.”

He hopes people get from the book a sense of themselves, because mas can only be played in TT. That is because in mas, he said, what people wear is secondary to the performance. People play the art.

Masman Peter Minshall says he and photographer Noel Norton had the same creative eye. - SUREASH CHOLAI

Asked if he had any favourite images in the book he said, “There was a moment in time and Noel captured it brilliantly. It was called From the Land of the Humming Bird and it was played by a 12-year-old child and it was a circle, a triangle and a line – the line being the beak.

“It was a piece of contemporary art. It was a piece of sculpture, and Noel Norton saw it and very early on in the book he shows it.”

Bringing out the book

Christine Norton said no book had been produced on Minshall and his work through the years, and the Noel Norton Collection Ltd wanted to acknowledge Minshall’s “tremendous contribution” and respect for one artist speaking of another artist.

“When I went into the database, I noted that there was a pattern of continuity, consistency and organisation. This was the first thing that signalled to me there was some kind of attempt at the beginnings of a book.”

So she proposed to Minshall a project on his work. He agreed, and she and Ashraph – an artist, mas designer and gallery owner – began searching through Noel’s photos. They looked for a long time but could not find the piece Tiger Tiger Burning Bright.

She later found the picture in a file. With it was a piece of paper. On one side was a scribbled note by her mother, Mary, attempting a description of a book. On the other side Minshall had written: “Maybe we can call the book Minshall by Norton. Come on, Noel, let’s do it.”

So it was clear to Christine that her parents had attempted to produce a book. She could not ask them, because they had both died, but she knew they were motivated by Minshall’s work.

“They obviously were trying to convince Daddy and see how they could frame that idea. But they put it in the file and let it go. Minshall didn’t even remember it.

Noel Norton’s daughter, Christine, with Peter Minshall. - SUREASH CHOLAI

“So when I found this paper and went to him with it, I said, ‘Remember we were thinking of this book and calling it a slightly different name – but look at this!’

“He was shocked. And so after that there was no question: it had to happen.”

The company did not have the money to complete a quality project on its own. The Noel Norton Collection Ltd and Angostura Ltd contributed, but much more was needed. Ashraph encouraged her to write a proposal and they approached over 20 companies for sponsorship.

Over a year later, just as she was about to give up, the National Gas Company (NGC) agreed to be the main sponsor. She said she was very happy NGC saw the importance of the country’s culture and what it had to offer.

She also expressed the desire to do similar projects on other artists, but, as evidenced by the negative responses to requests for sponsorship for the Minshall by Norton project, she did not believe it was feasible.

Masmen do not make a lot of money, said Christine, but create mas for the love of it, and so need support.

“I think it’s important to record what our mas people have been doing. We claim to have the greatest show on earth. We say these things but we have to give it meaning...

“My father always said he loved this country and would never leave. All he wanted to do (with his work) was to have us look at ourselves, look at how much we have done, look at our achievements.”

NGC president Mark Loquan, left, Christine Norton, daughter of late photographer Noel Norton, and Peter Minshall, alongside mas characters, at the launch of Minshall by Norton on December 6 at Castle Killarney.

She quoted Minshall, who has previously said his work – because it is performance art – only happens with the permission of the people. Therefore, she said citizens need to feel proud of what they are able to do, their creative ability.

The book allows those fleeting moments to live forever.

“We have to keep asking, ‘What is our message to the world?’ because it cannot just be crime. It can’t be that Trinidad is dangerous. I know we have more to us.

“So I think these things we do are a demonstration of what we have to offer in Trinidad. We are extremely creative people. I think there is so much to be proud of.”

Minshall by Norton is a limited-edition publication of 1,000 numbered copies. It is available at Paper Based Bookshop at the Normandie Hotel, St Ann’s; Horizons Art Gallery, Mucurapo Road; Rainy Days Gift Shop, Ellerslie Plaza, Maraval; or directly through the Noel Norton Collection Ltd by contacting info@noelnortoncollectionltd.com.


"Minshall in Norton’s eyes: a photographer chronicles a mas legend"

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